Standard Work for Leaders

Standard Work for Leaders
June 06 11:38 2016 Print This Article


If you want to consistently put out a high quality product with zero defects you need to eliminate all variance in each step of producing the product.   To accomplish this, many elements need to be in place and harmonized such as clear work instructions, effectively trained production team members, adequate tooling, equipment, facilities, etc.   You wouldn’t just hire employees to make your product and say “go figure it out the best way you know how” and hope for the best.   We all know this wouldn’t work and yet that is exactly what most companies do when it comes to their leaders.

Another way to think about it is to ask the question, “what causes improvements in customer experience and profitability to happen?”  This is the foundation for developing standard work for leaders.  It’s much more than just clear work instructions, training, tooling, facilities and equipment.   It also includes leadership capability, team alignment to strategy, culture, getting every brain in the game of continually improving, etc.

Companies regularly perform quality audits to ensure they are doing everything they agreed to do in order to produce a high quality product.   This is a very objective process for identifying issues and the same thing should apply to leaders.   What are all the systems and talent capability a leader needs to sustain, scale and continually improve upon in order to get extraordinary results in customer experience and profitability?   Below are examples for a “standard work” audit checklist for leaders:

  • Defined “Most Important Outcomes” for each team being lead. (Why are we here and why should the company invest in our team?)
  • Standard work for how products and services are produced within each team
  • Formalized training
  • Effective SME (subject matter expert) certification process
  • SME’s appropriately available
  • Clear work instructions that incorporate individual customer requirements when different from standard requirements
  • Understanding and application of your organization’s organization-wide management operating system (MOS)
  • Effective sub-management operating system for each functional group or team
  • Leadership Capability:
    • Leadership thinking and capability
      • Strength around organization’s defined leadership traits
      • Gets results
      • Hires the right people
      • Doesn’t protect poor performance
    • Strategic thinking, information gathering and acting
    • Management thinking and capability (connecting strategy to action and continuous improvement. Systemic approach to executing on organizationally aligned goals and effective scaling)
  • Current “Foundational Readiness” assessment (what is preventing us from achieving extraordinary results?)
  • Every employee has clear outcome-based performance requirements connected to strategy
  • Every employee knows where they stand and what’s expected 100% of the time
  • Every brain is fully in the game as evidenced by their improvement efforts stated to support their performance requirements and the organization’s Alignment Tools (Mission, Vision, Behaviors, Leadership Traits, etc.)
  • Managers are developing their direct reports with the mindset of being the best coach on the planet
  • Scoreboards that clearly define what winning and losing looks like for every team (KPI’s – leading and lagging)
  • Team meetings that support continually improving results around their “Most Important Outcomes”
  • Every employee meets with their manager no less than once a month for an hour to both develop the employee to bring more value for every dollar of payroll invested and to drive better results for the organization

A simple way to rate a leader on the above categories is red, yellow or green for each.   When it comes to rating each category you will find people that fall into one of two camps.  The first group will go out of their way to show you how “green” they are and be defensive when questioned.  The second group will reflect reality and fully embrace continuous improvement.  It’s important to be in the second group’s camp.   If a category is green, the leader should be able to objectively show how their work in that area is making the organization measurably better.    Think end result perspective and not compliance-based perspective when designing and executing on standard work for your leaders.   The wrong application of the right idea will not achieve the desired result.

Management Operating System

A key part of standard work for leaders is the organization’s business management operating system and each department’s sub-management operating system.  I’m not talking about an ERP, CRM, supply chain or accounting system.  A management operating system can be defined as what an organization’s leadership team does daily, weekly, monthly, annually, etc., to achieve extraordinary results.

When you analyze the results of an organization or team it is very helpful to correlate those results with what they actually did to achieve them. Without a disciplined approach to following a management operating system it is more difficult to know what to change in order to affect the results in a scalable and sustainable way.

You management operating system should include:

  • Annual approach to setting strategy and real time continuous improvement adjustments:
    • What is the macro view of your industry?
    • What did your strongest competitors do in the past year to change the game?
    • What did your organization do in the past year to change the game, how did it work out and what could you have done better?
    • What keeps you up at night?
    • What are you going to do in the next year to take as much work away from the competition as you want by being the best value alternative for your customers?
  • Distilling out your strategy into an execution plan:
    • Revenue sources by macro products/services categories
    • Total addressable market (TAM)
    • Top 1-3 areas your organization needs to improve
    • Setting and sustaining KPI scoreboards for all teams within your organization that clearly define winning or losing
    • Connecting all employees to your strategy through clear, realistic, outcome-based, actionable performance requirements.
  • Intentional approach to driving a high performance based culture
  • Team meeting rhythm
  • 1-to-1 meeting rhythm for all employees
  • No surprises performance reviews


Practical application leadership training

Developing standard work for your leadership team is a great first step, but if you do not have the right approach to continuous leadership development that reinforces what causes improvements in customer experience and profitability to happen you won’t get very far.   The right approach is what I like to call “practical application leadership training.”

Most organizations do traditional pre-packaged leadership training on subjects ranging from managing teams, leadership, culture, etc.   All are important areas for leaders to develop, but without the practical application of these principals and methodologies it is often not much more than entertainment. You could save a lot of money and get the same result or better by instead buying everyone movie tickets in most cases.

The only reason to do leadership training is to get better results for the organization around customer experience and profitability.   Whether the customers are internal or external all results fall into these two categories.  If it costs $10,000 to train a group of leaders (labor, facilities and material for facilitator and participants), then the return on this investment (ROI) should be no less than 10X over the next 12 months.    All leadership-training participants should leave the training program with this 10X+ ROI mindset.

Threading the challenges currently faced in your job into leadership training makes it real and one of the fastest ways to develop and grow as a leader. This is the difference between traditional pre-packaged leadership training (what you learn is set) and practical application leadership training (what you learn varies based on today’s challenges).

Leadership training can also drive fundamental principals and methodologies that through experience you know get results for your organization.  A team’s application (or non-application) of these fundamental principals and methodologies always correlates with their results.

A question I often ask when facilitating leadership training is “how many leaders in the room spent at least 100 hours in the past year intensely working on being a better leader?”  Usually less than 2 hands will go up in groups of up to 100.  It’s commonly accepted that if you want to be an expert at something you need to spend at least 10,000 hours intensely working on mastering it.    You can’t just go through the motions here.  If you want the best results you need an intentional approach that includes insatiable curiosity, a continuous improvement mindset and discipline.

Leadership Capability

In my view the single biggest deficit in business today is capable leadership.   A big advantage to having a leadership audit checklist is that you can have much more objective conversations about each leader’s capability.   Without this, poor performing leaders can linger way too long and significantly hurt an organization’s results.   It’s helpful to break leadership down into three categories:


  1. Leadership traits such as hiring the right people, not protecting poor performers, gets results, creates an environment that energizes the team, passion, resiliency, etc.
  2. Strategic thinking, information gathering and acting: The ability to appropriately step back, connect the dots in a more optimal way, then apply for even better results.
  3. Management capability: Your ability to systemically sustain and scale executing on your organization’s strategy.   Organizes all available resources to achieve the best possible outcomes around customer experience and profitability.

It’s rare to find leaders that are exceptional in all three categories.   That said, with the right approach to leadership development any leader can improve in all three.   Getting a small business to hold its own is hard enough.  It’s even harder to grow a small business into a solid midsize business.   It’s an iterative process that takes a lot of patience and hard and smart work.  If during this evolution you want to accelerate results in all categories, work more intensely on your organization’s leadership capability.

Lee BensonLee Benson, a visionary leader who started his journey into driving operational excellence in 1993, and later founded Execute to Win. Lee grew a 3 employee company into a world class 500+ employee aerospace company called Able Engineering & Component Services Inc. (Able), which had an unprecedented annual growth rate for the last 14 years of 20%+ CAGR on average before the company was sold to Textron Inc. in 2016. As his organization grew he searched the market for existing technology that would help him effectively communicate and connect every employee to his organization’s strategy and drive an intentional performancebased culture. Much to his disappointment no such system existed. Realizing that a sustainable and scalable way to drive culture and performance was the key to his organization’s success, he had his team of software engineers create the prototype for what is now known as Execute to Win (ETW).